Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Illinois State Fair is deep-fried fun

Twilight parade, 2012

    The Illinois State Fair opened Friday, and runs until Aug. 23. While I  can't say that I felt an urgent yearning in my heart to hurry down to Springfield and attend, three years ago my family did go, and it was more fun than we expected. 

Deep-fried dill pickles
     Fried dill pickles from the 17th Street Barbecue. Soft-serve vanilla ice cream in the Dairy Building. Fried walleye from the Walleye Stop. Coconut-flavored watermelon. Fried key lime pie on a stick. Fried cheesecake. Bananas wrapped in rice and fried. A rib-eye beef sandwich, unfried. Shepherd's pie. Greek salad in the Ethnic Village. A fried brownie.
     That does sound like a lot, doesn't it? That was the menu of what I ate, in the order I ate it, during the first four hours of wandering around the Illinois State Fair on Thursday, the evening it opened.
Have to try the red velvet funnel cake
   Granted, I didn't eat all of it. I had my family to help. Sometimes I only sampled a forkful. I had only three fried dill pickle slices. The first to try it, to register its hot dill pickleness. The second to confirm what the first had tasted like—not good, not awful, just weird. The third quarter-sized slice because my older son, who had been inspired to buy them, begged me to help.
     "Please have some more," he said, holding the cardboard trough that contained most of the pound or so they gave him for his seven bucks. "I can't finish them all."
     I delivered a little speech about how not finishing everything is a survival skill at the fair, and we pitched the rest.
     So why, having never gone to the Illinois State Fair in my entire life, did I decide to drive the 200 miles to attend now? Several reasons. First, I was in town, not on one of the epic transcontinental vacations we've been taking for, gee, the previous four years.
     Second, I was curious. I went to the fair for the same reason Mallory climbed Mt. Everest: because it's there.
     And third, I heard you could milk a cow. That piqued my interest. I've witnessed a variety of food chain activities—pigs slaughtered, goats fed, turkeys exercised, even watched bloater chubs pulled from Lake Michigan. But I've never been up close and personal with a cow. That seemed a thing to do.
     What I wasn't interested in was snarky urban sneering. Some targets are too wide—I have my pride. Just as I sheathed my dagger when I went to Graceland and Disney World, so I sensed, somehow, driving through the lovely Illinois farmland framed by white expanses of billowy cumulus clouds, that there would be no icon-bashing this trip.

     And indeed, my immediate impressions of the crowds flowing into the fair included none of the standard anthropological clucking. My fellow visitors weren't particularly fatter than anybody you'd see shopping on Michigan Avenue. They weren't rustic in obvious, laughable ways. Just here to enjoy good old-fashioned—if hypercaloric—American fun.
     Maybe it helped that the temperature was in the low 80s, so it wasn't the hell­scape it might be if it were in the upper 90s. There was even a cool breeze.
     The fair opened its 10-day run—until Aug. 19—with a Twilight Parade, led by fire trucks representing entities such as the Illiopolis Fire Protection District. Gov. Pat Quinn led a phalanx of green-shirted supporters. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan seemed surprised to spot me in the crowd.
     "What are you doing here?" she shouted as the parade rolled by.
     "Working!" I yelled back.
     The family shared a table in the Ethnic Village with Kris Theilen, alderman of Springfield's 8th Ward, and supporter Patrick O'Ravis.
     "A lot of people who come to the fair are locals," said O'Ravis. "You get a chance to see people you haven't seen. And it's a great children's atmosphere."
      "For 10 days your routine is different," said Theilen. "I saw people I haven't seen for years. We buy the Mega-Pass. My children ride the rides like you wouldn't believe."

      My boys, while too cool for the Zipper or the Ferris wheel, were placated by the vista of bizarre fried foods — candy bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, anything that could be dropped into a fryer — and seemed to be having a good time, or at least as good a time as teens are capable of having with their parents. I had fun, finding the kind of whimsy I admire. One of the food stands is called, "Mom 'n' Pop Corn."
     "My oldest daughter came up with the name," said Mike Paine, who travels the country selling candied popcorn with his wife, Bonnie. "I'm pop and this is mom and the little kernels are back in Minnesota."
     He said business is good. At that moment it began to rain, lightly. I worried it might be bad for the fair, but Paine unexpectedly called to the heavens for more.
     "Quit teasing us with rain!" he commanded the skies, explaining that the drought is affecting his business.
     "My popcorn is not popping like normal," he said—the moisture in popcorn is what causes it to pop, and dry popcorn doesn't pop right. "There's a definite difference. If it's hurting me, imagine what it's doing with the farmers."
     Monday: Cows, both butter and living.

                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 12, 20012


  1. Memories. I grew up in Auburn, IL, 16 miles south of Springfield. My mom, dad and I went to the State Fair every year while there. The dairy building was one of my favorite stops, what with the games to play, the once-a-year chance to try some buttermilk (and realize, again, how horrible it is, but still cherish it) and the Butter Cow. The Butter Cow seems a bit more elaborate these days, judging from the picture.

  2. Did anyone try the whip crème puffs there? Bet they can't compare to the ones in Milwaukee at the Wisc. State Fair. Same goes for a smaller fare in DuPage county or the Sandwich fair around Kane or Kendall County. It seems most fairs are alike.

  3. Didn't know Lisa Madigan and NS were acquainted.

  4. When I was 17, my father dragged us all down there for several days.
    Mud, pigshit, horseshit, cowshit & sheepshit everywhere, not to mention the smell in 95 degree weather.
    Even the zoo in similar weather isn't as bad & at least the animals in the zoo are more interesting!
    The Illinois fair is for the wretched Downstate hicks, not us in civilization, such as it is!

  5. Those 4-H kids try so hard.

  6. Urban bias is ridiculous. Horseshit, pigshit, cowshit, and the like are all the realities of bringing meat to the American Table.
    Being dismissive of any occupation as being backwards is just BULLSHIT.
    The work of the farmer and rancher is what keeps people alive.
    Our modern corporate agri-business may not be the "American Gothic" portrait of America that once fed the people, but there are still those who must deal with shit in order to feed the nation. I don't want to be disparaging but bI don't appreciate those that devalue work. Jobs that "no one wants" are still jobs that must be done.

    1. Very true, Paul. Those family farmers work a long, hard day. That said, a state fair on a really hot day would not leave many city/suburban adolescents with warm, fuzzy memories. Well, maybe warm.

    2. Yes, I'd respect them more than some city snob.

    3. I wasn't being disrespectful to the farmers.
      I was being disrespectful to the wretched Illinois State Fair.
      Texas has a far better fair. So does Michigan.
      They put their state fairgrounds next to big cities [Dallas or Detroit], so they cater to them, not the hicks.

    4. Way to redeem yourself from appearing disrespectful.

    5. MI state fair is by Lansing, not really a big city at all.

    6. When I was younger, the Michigan fairgrounds were at 8 Mile Road Woodward.
      I had no idea that was closed 6 years ago & moved to Novi.

    7. Oops, got it mixed up w the county fair there. To me these fairs just blur together, I can't stand them,and they are all over the place.

  7. Speaking of horseshit, the Sunday Morning television gabfests were all about the Iowa State Fair and all the adoration of Donald Trump going on there. I did learn that he has something the other aspirants to the highest office in the land can't offer. If you support him he might give you a ride in his helicopter.

    About unlikely fried foods, when I was living in London some years ago a Cockney treat was deep fried Mars Bars. I tried one once and learned a) you have to be careful not to burn your tongue, and b) it tasted just like a Mars Bar...sickly sweet. Much preferred a nice Spotted Dick for my pudding.

    Tom Evans

    1. Tom, would you care to explain about that pudding??????

    2. I don't mind. In this country a pudding is a creamy, milk-based sweet desert, but to the Brits the term applies generically to any final course, sweet or savory. In London I was confused when first told we would be having ice cream for our pudding,

      Spotted Dick Pudding is a steamed, suet-based concoction laced with raisins or currants and usually served with custard. The name, despite its semi-obscene anatomical resonance for Americans has a somewhat complex etymology that Mr. Google would be able to help you with.

      Interestingly enough, when you leave for foreign shores you might also order a pudding and be presented with a sausage. As R.L. Stevenson had it, "The world is so full of such wonderful things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."

      Tom Evans

    3. okay, I'll stick with chocolate

      I know pudding there is more of a cake

    4. I did google it, Mr. Tom, but I wanted you to explain it in your own words, thanks.

      no thanks on the shepherd's pie either-I want my pie with sugar and fruit in it

  8. Trapped in a confined space with Donald Trump? No, thanks.

    The oddest fair food I had was fried Coke at the Angola Prison Rodeo.

    1. yes, Coey, agree that experience of being in close contact with Trump the misogynist wouldn't be a pleasant one

  9. How does one fry coke? with oil? grimace

    1. IIRC, it was balls of dough soaked in Coke and then deep-fried in (of course) oil. Isn't everything at the fair either fried and/or on a stick?

  10. Now I've heard everything. Well the crème puffs aren't fried at least.

  11. That red velvet funnel cake looks good.


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